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Comedy and Henri Bergson


Originally published Sept. 4, 2014.

Photo from Kayatana Stamps.

When one thinks of comedy, one rarely thinks of Henri Bergson—quite possibly because one has never heard of Henri Bergson. I was surprised to learn not too many years ago that Bergson was considered the greatest thinker on the planet…at least according to another great thinker, Bertrand Russell.

At the end of the 19th century, Bergson lectured in sold-out venues around the world. He probed the nature of man and the human soul. He examined life from the viewpoint of a poet and a scientist and then, quite surprisingly, turned his attention to comedy.

His lectures on comedy have been collected in an essay called “Laughter.” To summarize very briefly: Man is torn between two forces. The desire to organize, prioritize, mechanize, and create rules to handle the obstacles of life—and an equally powerful, opposing desire to throw caution to the winds and be flexible to deal with situations that aren’t easily handled by sticking to the rules.

There you have it.

Bergson observed that comedy is created when a character is stuck in one of these two positions. The closer man resembles a machine the funnier he becomes. This rigidity can be physical, like Charlie Chaplin’s walk or Peter Sellers’ uncontrollable Nazi salute in “Dr. Strangelove.” The mechanization can also be emotional, like Rainn Wilson’s hilariously inflexible Dwight Schrute on “The Office.”

The opposite is true as well. Bergson notes that characters with no ability to organize or act appropriately are also funny. This is a comedic motif used by Woody Allen in many of his comedies. “Bananas” and “Sleeper” come to mind.

In one of television’s classic comedy sketches, the brilliant Lucille Ball demonstrated the entirety of Bergson’s comedic theory with the candy assembly line. Need I say more? Lucy and Ethel begin as “part of the machine” wrapping candies; they end in a disorganized mess as the assembly line speeds up. Both ends of the spectrum create tension, which is released in our laughter.

Bergson took on Shakespeare. His insights were thought-provoking. He said the monologues in the tragedies should always be performed standing. He said if Hamlet sits onstage when he delivers “To be or not to be…” the energy becomes comedic. Sitting is an indication that a character is affected by gravity. They are weary in some way and need to rest. This turns their noble and even desperate sentiments into something more trivial, and in danger of looking like kvetching.

Bergson saw the modern comic spirit as the individual who has substituted the jargon of his profession for his humanity—like when someone at a bank explains why you were charged fees on your “no fees” checking plan. The classic comedy “No Time for Sergeants” has several examples of this type of Bergson comedy. The one-size-fits-all structure of the military is a perfect setting for showing the human desire to strictly follow and/or break rules.

We laugh because, as in the best comedies, it points to a larger truth: We are close to the angels, but we’re not there yet.



Originally published August 7, 2014

Photo source: Backstage, Clay Rodery.

I was teaching my comedy class at Kalmenson & Kalmenson when I discovered one of my students was very adept at improvisation. I asked what her background was. She said she was a writer and an acrobat.

An acrobat?

Yes. She was studying aerial acrobatics, à la Cirque du Soleil. I asked what that was like. She said it was a rush to perform 40 feet off the ground. (I let that comment pass as part of the foolishness of youth.) I asked her how you learn something like that. She said her teacher told her that the critical moments in any acrobatic move were the transitions from various planes, from the horizontal (on the ground) to the vertical (going into the air) and to the horizontal once again when you reach your final position above the arena. She said the essence of acrobatics is the transition between horizontal to vertical. Doing it in a seamless way. Doing it in a beautiful way.

Her remarkable passion explained one of the primary tools of script analysis: Find the transitions.

There is a tendency to get lost in a script, in a role, in a single speech. The words become the forest that keeps us from seeing the trees.

On a macro scale, look for the moments that change the direction of your character. On a micro scale, look for the moments in each line where there is a transition. Where is the place you learned something you didn’t know before? What is the one piece of information in a line that makes that line necessary?

There is something else I found curious in my student’s acrobatic dramaturgy: It was laid out in three acts. It started on the ground. There was literal “rising action,” followed by a conclusion. This is the same dramatic formula offered by Aristotle in “Poetics.” Although it is about 2,500 years old, it is still a good tool to use.

Finding the “acts” in a script, in a part, even in a single line, will usually lead you to the important, playable transitions. These transitions are not set in stone. They can move around. That is exciting, too. By playing with where the “act breaks” are in a line, you may find alternate readings and new ideas. For example, we all know:

To be, or not to be—that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them.

By changing where you want to break this small part of Hamlet’s monologue into “acts,” you can find very playable specifics. For example, you could start Act 3 of this section on the word “or” in the next-to-last line. Alternately, you could start it on the word “and” in the final line. Either way will create an interesting performance choice.

The transitions in acting are the ways we discuss physics. They are the changes of direction, the energy of a new idea that can lead us to the truth we long to uncover.

Horror Vacui

jarry  Deadwood

Originally published July 10, 2014

One of my favorite classes in college was art history. Our teacher introduced us to a concept that sounded like something from a science fiction movie: “horror vacui.” She explained it meant fear of open space. The Egyptians were afflicted with it. In their art, they had the need to fill every blank surface. Their massive sculptures were covered with hieroglyphics. When that didn’t seem to do the trick, they painted them as well. Horror vacui was one of the dominant influences in some of the more famous illustrated manuscripts from the Middle Ages. There seemed to be the literal need to fill in all the 0s.

Not all horror vacui is bad. As parents, we have come to rely on “Where’s Waldo?” books for a few minutes of peace and quiet.

However, horror vacui is a force that hurts our acting. There is a tangible urge to fill any silence. I have seen clean, dramatic moments muddied by randomly adding words, gestures, or ever-evolving facial expressions. I have seen great comedic lines not “land” because of what my acting teachers used to call “nervous energy.”

Is that what it is? My teachers always pointed to the great insights of Stanislavsky. Actors need relaxation onstage. We did endless relaxation exercises in college. Some were so effective I fell asleep, but for some reason I still twitched onstage.

I think Stanislavsky has a good explanation for horror vacui, but it was in a different part of his book. In “An Actor Prepares,” he notes, “The very worst fact is that clichés will fill up every empty spot in a role, which is not already solid with living feeling.”

My takeaway from this is not to add more feeling but to investigate the “empty spots” of a role.

I look to another discipline for guidance—chemistry. Electrons will always seek the lowest level of energy. It is the same with acting. We feel most comfortable at the lowest level of energy. This doesn’t lead to too little feeling, it leads to too many unexplored questions. That leads to holes in our characterizations, which leads to horror vacui and the desire to fill in the gaps with randomness.

I have a series of questions I ask when I start working on a scene. They help me get grounded in the truth.

Is the situation I am in new or old?

Am I telling the truth? All of the time? If not, why am I lying?

What was I doing before the scene started?

Where am I going afterward?

Did the events of this scene change the course of my day? Why?

These are just a few. They always jump-start the search for specific truths. As Stanislavsky wrote, “You may play well or you may play badly; the important thing is that you should play truly.”

Silence and relaxation happen when we are confident we are telling the truth. Our horror vacui becomes a wonderful barometer that tells us we still have questions that need answers.

The Words That Hurt

Portrait 3

originally appeared
June 12, 2014.

In improvisation, you have to be your own writer, director, performer, and editor. I have one rule: You are not allowed to be your own critic.

All actors want constructive criticism. That is the only way we can get better. However, there is a line. I have always doubted the effectiveness of acting teachers who beat their students like a piñata at a 5-year-old’s birthday party. Hurtful intentions travel faster than words. Abusive teachers are feared, but never heard.

Stanislavsky mentioned the No. 1 thing you needed to be an actor. Surprisingly, it was not truth or emotional depth. It was will—the strength to stand up and do it. When you have been hurt, when you hurt yourself, it becomes harder and harder to stand up.

As a business, acting has always accepted hurtful words as part of the territory. Like it or not, actors must come up with effective ways of dealing with misery.

All hurtful situations can generally be summed up as one: rejection. From bad auditions to getting fired, there is one terrible message: You are not good enough. The reason why this hurts so much is that it is true. None of us are good enough—especially by our own standards.

We have all had bad days. We have had moments when our focus is off, where our vision is not clear. Our own disappointments in ourselves are more potent than anything a director or producer could say.

The first line of defense is to be your own best friend, your advocate. Do everything you can do to be at your best. Know your lines. Understand the story you are telling, and your role in the story. Protect yourself. Don’t do self-destructive things like play golf without sunscreen before you have to work.

When we still come to the well of self-doubt, what do we do?

I think we have to embrace the idea that our lack of faith in ourselves can be a good thing. It is self-doubt that pushes us. It is self-doubt that makes us want to become one with the material. Self-doubt becomes the blood in our performances.

Self-doubt only becomes dangerous when we turn it into a lifestyle. Second-guessing yourself is a sign that your will is being affected. The cure? Pick one choice. Who knows? Maybe your instinct is right. Often our talent is more aware of what to do than our brains.

The action of doing that one choice becomes the permission we need to find new choices we may like better. “Doing” creates the flow that allows your talent to speak.

I have worked with actors who tie themselves in knots feeling their choice is not perfect, or the expression of their choice is faulty. There is no need. Remember, you are never alone. In film, you have other actors, a director, and editors who will shape your final performance. In theater, you have tomorrow.

Talent is a delicate creature. It needs kindness to come out into the light.

New show in Santa Barbara!!!

StephenTobolowskyJPEG click to enlarge!

Take A Hike


Originally published
May 15, 2014.

Photo source: Backstage, Clay Rodery.

A joint study by the University of Kansas and the University of Utah finally confirmed something that people knew 3,000 years ago. Researchers took 56 people, a fairly even mix of men and women, sent them into the wilderness on organized camping trips, and when they returned they had which of the following?

a. Farmer’s tans

b. Camper’s constipation

c. More creativity

They probably had all three, but the point of this column is “c.” They scored higher overall on a series of creativity tests. More nature equals more creativity. Maybe.

The problem with the study is that the participants were immersed in nature for four days without any electronics. So there is a possibility that the higher creativity could be related to disconnecting from computers and iPhones for a while.

This is something the Amish have been saying for years. The Jewish Sabbath is built around disconnecting for one day a week. In Abraham Joshua Heschel’s classic book, “The Sabbath,” there is an observation made by his daughter that on Starudays, the disconnection from the business of the world enabled you to be affected by nature. You became more aware of the changing path of the sun throughout the year. The varying amounts of sunlight and shadow had a profound effect on personality.

“Social media” is on the verge of becoming an oxymoron. If Renoir were to paint an afternoon at any restaurant in Los Angeles or New York, he would have to be good at depicting the light reflecting off of an iPhone; couples in love, texting; whole groups of people, checking emails.

When I was in college, I had an acting teacher who was my mortal enemy. Despite our history, I recall something she said in class. (She would be happy to know she had a positive influence on me.) She came into class in tears one day. She asked how we expected to be actors if we didn’t participate in life? How could we be engaged in art if we weren’t engaged in the world around us? She was right.

Earlier studies on nature and creativity cite the decline in nature-based recreation over the last 30 years. The psychologists said our lives are filled with events like television, computers, cellphones, and sirens that “ambush” our attention. Nature allows “the executive attentional system to replenish.” We become more human, more observant, more self-possessed.

Could this be a cause for the increase in creativity?

You can say art is about many things: passion, point of view, technique. The one thing that unifies all art is choice. The ability to choose is based on our ability to see priorities.

It is hard to make choices when we are surrounded by noise. We can take back some of our creative lives by controlling the amount of noise around us. Electronic and otherwise.

Maybe Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman were on to something. Clearing our heads is the first step to finding our souls.

Do You Really Have to Memorize Lines?


Originally appeared backstage April 17, 2014.

Photo source: Backstage, Clay Rodery.

One of the eye openers about being a teacher isn’t the questions—it’s the answers. Over the years I have become more uncertain of everything, even the basics. Here is a frightening example: Two years ago, one of my students asked if it was important to learn your lines. (Pause for a bemused smile.) Of course you have to learn your lines! It is part of your job. It is what is referred to as “what you are paid to do.”

Or is it?

In the days when Marlon Brando was the ideal of every young actor, the stories of his refusal to learn lines were legendary. Brando felt the camera loved to look at the human face grasping for the next idea, and I believed it—especially when I had a lot of irritating exposition to learn.

I was playing “Computer Guy” on “Knots Landing,” a one-hour television drama from the 1980s. I had a scene where I had to deliver a half page of phony tech talk to William Devane, one of the show’s stars. When I showed up to rehearse the scene, William asked, “You didn’t learn that crap did you?” I said, “No, sir.” He patted me on the back and said, “Good man.” I cut the speech out of the script and pasted it on my computer screen and read it. I pointed at it and pretended I was showing William something on the monitor. Not my finest hour, but it worked.

On “Deadwood,” it was a foregone conclusion we wouldn’t be able to learn our lines. Ian McShane told me to keep looking at him, stay in character, and just call out “Line.” The script supervisor would feed us the next adverbial clause. In the end, the scene turned out to be a standoff of two actors saying “Line.” They cut it together and it looked great.

On sitcoms, writers occasionally hold out alternate jokes and spring them on the actors during the show. No rehearsal. The audience loves it. Especially if you forget what you’re supposed to say.

Arthur Rubinstein was one of the great pianists of the 20th century. He believed that if a pianist practiced too much, the piece sounded lifeless, like they kept it in their pocket. He felt there should always be a question as to what would happen in live performance. He said the audience could sense if there was blood in the work. He wanted to go out onstage with the uncertainty as to who would win that night—Beethoven or him. Of course, he was a genius. He could do those things and get away with it. Later in his life, after the birth of his children, he dedicated himself to more practice. He didn’t want to set a bad example.

The way I look at it, an actor only has two choices: You are either over- or underprepared. If you are overprepared it is easier to improvise than if you are underprepared and have to do the scene in one take.

So learn your lines.


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